The coalition government is about to face its second major challenge, just two months after the student fees riots. Over a decade since the Jenkins Commission recommended the abolition of the First Past The Post (FPTP) voting system in 1998, the general public will vote for electoral reform in May as part of one of the key manifesto pledges of the coalition.
The proposed system, Alternative Vote (AV), is in fact not much of a radical departure from the FPTP system. It's used to elect representatives for single-member constituencies, just like FPTP except that voters have the option to rank the candidates by preference rather than simply marking an "X" on the ballot paper for their favourite. If a candidate receives a majority of first-preference votes, then they are elected. If no candidate gains a majority on first preferences, then the second-preference votes of the candidate who finished last on the first count are redistributed. This process is then repeated until someone gets over 50 per cent. This system is currently used in the Australian House of Representatives and the Irish presidential elections, as well to elect the hereditary peers in the House of Lords.
Proponents of the AV system argue that it has several key advantages over FPTP. Under the AV system, all MPs would have the support of a majority of their voters. It would retain the same constituency boundaries, penalise extremist parties and eliminate the need for tactical voting. However, AV was not the system recommended by the Jenkins Commission. It preferred the Alternative Vote Top-Up (AV+) system, a combination of alternative vote and additional member system, which was shelved under Labour on the grounds that it was too complex.
Opponents of the AV system have largely fallen into two camps: those who support the status quo, and those who argue that AV is still not proportional enough. FPTP supporters argue that the current system produces the strongest governments by avoiding cohabitation and keeps fringe parties like the BNP out of power. Whether these strong governments are fair is another matter; FPTP can produce notoriously skewed results. Labour's second victory in 2001, which awarded them 63 per cent of seats in the House of Commons, was won with just 40 per cent of the vote.
Tories say nay
Recent polling suggests that the race will be a tight one, with the "Yes" and "No" camps at 37 per cent each, and the "Don't Knows" at 27 per cent. However, the campaign has become politically charged as some voters are seeking to punish their leaders by voting against their respective camps. Cameron has thrown his weight behind the "No" campaign, arguing that AV will produce more hung parliaments (much like his own) while Ed Miliband heads the "Yes" campaign. Meanwhile, Nick Clegg has been forced to take a back seat from spearheading the pro-AV charge because of fears that his current unpopularity will lead the electorate to vote against him rather than the reform itself.
The significance of the campaign is intensified by the shaky political alliance that underpins the coalition. After the tuition fees debacle, electoral system reform is seen as one of the only concessions that Clegg has been able to secure for the Lib Dems. Electoral reform has always formed part of the Liberal Democrat manifesto, largely because the current system heavily penalises the party, whose support tends to be spread across constituencies rather than concentrated in particular locations. If he fails to deliver, Clegg could be facing widespread backbench revolt and accusations that he has conceded too much to the Conservatives in the pursuit of office, and gained little for the Lib Dems in the process.
One step forward, two steps back
So if the public vote in favour of change in May, how will it affect the political landscape? Cameron's claim that AV will lead to more hung parliaments is slightly disingenuous: Australia has used AV for more than 90 years, where it has resulted in just two hung parliaments. Similarly, his claim that we shouldn't "replace a system that everyone gets with one that's only understood by a handful of elites" borders on insulting, insinuating that only a small portion of the population could be relied upon to number candidates by preference rather than simply placing a cross in a box. The truth is that the current system has created a rather comfortable two-party state which neither Labour nor the Conservatives have historically been keen to relinquish, which is hardly surprising given the significant advantage it affords them.
Despite the controversy, AV isn't really as revolutionary as those in favour of FPTP suggest. In fact, the BBC has even banned the use of the word "reform" in conjunction with the voting system in the run up to the May elections. AV is still not a proportional system, and the fact remains that in essence it isn't much of a departure from FPTP. Alone, it's unlikely to cause that much damage to the two-party structure; studies suggest that the Lib Dems would have only gained around 20 or so more seats in recent elections.
The half-hearted nature of the proposed changes leaves those who feel that AV is not going far enough in a difficult position. By voting against AV in protest, they risk their vote being recorded as evidence that the public are opposed to electoral reform. By voting for it, they could be stuck with a system that is still not proportional while the government considers itself to have fulfilled its pledge to the electorate.
The result is likely to be skewed further by those voting against AV in the hope that it will trigger a fundamental breakdown of the coalition, a serious possibility given its current fragility. In the event of a "No" result, Clegg will be forced to work extremely hard to hold it - and his own party - together.
Some kind of electoral change is long overdue in the UK. Although it rose for the 2010 election, voter turnout is generally is decreasing, suggesting widespread disengagement with Westminster. So as it forces politicians to look beyond certain sections of the electorate to gain an overall majority, a "Yes" vote on AV could at least help to restore some much-needed faith in the political process.
*Electoral systems across the UK *
General elections - First Past The Post (FPTP)
Scottish Parliament - Additional Member System (AMS)